Background: Eritrea is one of the world’s most secretive nations and has been closed to foreign journalists for a long time. During the past year, Blankspot’s Martin Schibbye has followed the pro-Eritrean groups and here he reports, in the first of a three part series, from the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia, not far from the country where he himself was imprisoned for 438 days from 2011 to 2012 during a reportage trip. An investigative report on oil transformed into a story about ink and Freedom of the Press as they fought for survival inside the notorious Kality prison in Addis Ababa. Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were pardoned and released—after 438 days—on September 10, 2012. Now they return to the region, in search of answers…
Part 1 The Border—April 2016
The four-wheel drive Toyota bumps and jerks over the rocks. In the distance, camels move along. The strong smell of gasoline burns in the nostrils, sand crunching between teeth. Amanuel Hadgu, our escort from the Eritrean Ministry of Information. He’s dressed in civilian clothes, laughs easily and appreciates leaving his office to get out in the field.
Between his legs he holds a camera to document our visit at the border. His forehead is already shiny with sweat.
We pass a sign warning of land mines.
”Over there is Ethiopia,” he says and points toward a hill over by the horizon. ”I’m sure they’ve missed you.”
Next to me in the backseat is Johan Persson, the photographer who was jailed with me in Ethiopia for more than a year between 2011 and 2012. The landscape surrounding us is unforgiving and I recognize it all too well. My body remembers the heat, the sand, the smell of gunpowder and the taste of blood. A half-empty water bottle rolls around on the floor boards of the Toyota. The sound is familiar.
They say the desert raises you by taking.
As long as I focus on this project, this reportage trip, I’m calm. If I zoom out and see myself as a small speck traveling toward the Horn of Africa, toward a country that views me as a convicted terrorist, my mouth goes dry and I start sweating.
Of all the countries in the world, why am I back here?
My motivation is rooted in journalistic principals. The as-yet unsolved border conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea is an important question to the future of the country celebrating 25 years as an independent nation this year.
Most of what us Swedes and Europeans read about in terms of Eritrea has to do with the imprisoned journalist Dawit Isaak, who’s been in prison for 15 years this September.
The fact that Ethiopia occupies parts of Eritrea is largely unknown.
And just like a tongue that is constantly touching, feeling the aching tooth, I want to be back here, on the border of possibilities.
We speed past water pumps and houses of dried clay. The road ahead of us is empty with the exception of some children playing and a goat or two. The dust, which now has infiltrated my shirt, is starting to feel like sand paper in my perspiration.
I pull out a map and unfold it in the back seat. My fingers travel across names from Asmara to Mendefera and Adi Quala toward the south and I try to measure the distance with a compass as the car moves along the bumpy road.
I am guessing that we are about nine kilometers from Ethiopia. A tank’s firing range is ten.
Our fear and anxiety are good things. They keeps us alert. Stop us from getting soft and losing our edge.
”Maybe this isn’t such a great idea,” says Johan as if reading my thoughts.
This is our first reporting trip together since our time in prison. We had said that it would be fun to succeed with a project together some time, but I procrastinated for a long time before calling him about this trip. Finally I realized that if I was going to do this, it had to be with him. Our working relationship is a little rusty, but we’re starting to feel like a team again. With every moment closing in on the border, a kind of survival mode kicks in, a mode where everything inessential is left behind.
Ahead of us, the desert is spreading its vastness and we know all too well that here, there is no room for bickering.
The Toyota is moving erratically between boulders and thorny bushes. We get a visual of the mountainous border between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
The road to the border post is made for tanks or camels—not cars. Rock after rock slams against the chassis and we are jerked around in our seats. The smell of gasoline induces a headache.
I hold the map in a cramped grip. It’s gotten moist from my sweaty palms and I think I should have laminated it.
Suddenly we are close enough to discern the many trenches snaking around the mountainside. Men dressed in camouflage look at us curiously
We drive up on a mountain, around us the view of a flat desert is endless in all geographic directions.
”You’ve got 10 minutes, then we have to leave,” says Hadgu opening the door to the backseat.
The wind whips my hair and I take a deep breath. On the other side of the valley is Ethiopia. Suddenly Johan’s phone pings with an incoming text message.
The Eritrean network blocks all foreign phones—it can only mean one thing. We’ve picked up the Ethiopian cellular network.
”Damn, turn it on flight mode!” I yell.
”Yeah, yeah,” Johan mutters.
In something that resembles excitement, we run toward the dugouts that are so close to the edge, they are almost hanging off the mountainside. The thought of the risk involved by us returning here, rushes like hot liquid through my veins.
”This is gutsy,” I say.
”A little too gutsy,” Johan responds, nervously.
MEMORIES OF THE WAR 1998-2000
They didn’t arrive at dawn like Berhane thought.
The heat was oppressive and the sun was already high in the sky by the time he saw the first Ethiopian soldiers running, half-crouched, across the dry valley. Around him the platoon had set up helmets on sticks to give the impression they were more soldiers up there in the trenches.
Curiously, he followed the Ethiopian advance through his riflescope, the distance too big still for him to want to squeeze the trigger.
He already knew, because of the last war, the 30-year long war, that every soldier in his ranks was forced to kill 25 enemies each, in order to stand a chance of survival.
This time, like back then, the odds were not on Berhane’s side.
The confusion was great in the beginning. The order was crystal clear, while at the same time completely incomprehensible.
They had fought in the same war, rolled into Addis Abeba together in 1991, they spoke the same language and had devoted themselves to the same cause—and now, he had to shoot at his brothers and sisters.
After 30 years of war with Ethiopia, he had hoped for a lasting peace. An alliance. A common economy.
“I knew war eats people. And not just the people—it devours all of a country’s resources, all efforts that should have gone into the development will go to the war, all dreams will be postponed.”
At the same time, he was also a soldier. If someone attacks your country, he knew you have to fight back. And if someone slaps Eritrea in the face, you don’t turn the other cheek.
You head-butt the enemy.
Berhane knew that’s how his generation reasoned.
But he was scared.
“We are only human, but when they started shooting and I did the same thing, then the fear disappeared.”
The first soldiers fell, silently, to the ground and became still. He reloaded his rifle with an experienced hand.
The next attack came after only a few minutes. They were successful this time, too. Then a third wave of soldiers. And a fourth. Berhane remembers thinking that the machine-gun pipes were about to overheat. After that, his memories are fragmented.
“It was completely unrealistic. They fell like rag dolls down the mountain, bounced and tumbled among the black stones. It was like an army of zombies, and impossible to count them.”
The officers told them that if they lost the Adi Begio rock, if it fell into enemy hands—that would be the end for Eritrea as a country. Then, the road would be wide open straight to Asmara, the capital.
“At dusk it got harder to hit target. The Ethiopian soldiers held all the way to the dugouts closest down to the valley. I could hear how my friends fought man-to-man, with fists and knives.”
In the dark, several of his own were shot, and during cease-fire, he could hear the moans of the dying.
That’s when an order came from higher ups, some say it came straight from the president, to roll the artillery up on the rock and aim the barrels downward—in violation of both the war and the law of physics.
Nobody who was there will forget the sight that met them when the sun rose the following day.
“You couldn’t put your foot down without stepping on a dead person, there were corpses everywhere,” Berhane says and points.
At the bottom of one ravine there are still skeletons with military boots on their feet. That’s how they knew who was who.
“The dead soldiers with sandals, we dragged with us and buried. The Ethiopian soldiers wore boots, so we let them lay. Nobody came to collect their corpses. They’ve laid there for 14 years now.”
It’s hard to say when everything went wrong. The difference of opinion had been there during the whole independence campaign. Some point to the fact that relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia had been strained ever since independence in 1993. Ethiopia claimed parts of Eritrean territory and there was dissatisfaction over the terms of the use of the strategically important ports of Eritrea.
Others say that the Ethiopian Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF guerillas, have always strived for a “larger Tigray” which includes Eritrea. And yet another opinion is that Eritrea’s decision to replace the Ethiopian currency with its own was a declaration of war.
The only thing all parties seem to agree on is that the conflict is about everything but the dry land.
There are also a number of versions as to what was the real reason for the actual outbreak of war. According to Ethiopia, on May 12, 1998, an Eritrean troop entered a disputed area behind the poorly-marked border.
According to Eritrea, Ethiopian militia torched one of their villages north of the city Badme. When Eritrean soldiers went there to mediate, they were shot and killed.
The following day, May 13, 1998, the Ethiopian Parliament declared war on Eritrea and in June the airport in Asmara was bombed with napalm.
Eritrea countered with an aerial bombing of Mekelle, the closest large city in Ethiopia. The cluster bombs destroyed military complexes, but also a school, where twelve children died.
Within a few months, what was first considered a border conflict had escalated into a full-fledged war.
Embassies in Asmara were evacuated. Eritrea was the accused aggressor and the country entered a familiar state of war. At the height of the war, armies of half a million men stood on opposing sides of the border, which makes it the largest battle in African history.
After two years of combat, the non-profit International Crisis Group estimates the number of deaths to be between 70,000—100,000 on both sides. 250,000 people of the region have become refugees.
The two countries finally entered a peace agreement in Alger in June 2000 and accepted that an independent border commission would determine the outcome of the war.
Both parties committed to accept the conclusion of the commission, but when presented with their findings in 2002, which were said to be final and binding, Ethiopia refused to accept that the city of Badme would belong to Eritrea.
NO WAR, NO PEACE?
The Eritrean flag slowly moves in the wind above an abandoned lookout made of stone and dirt walls.
A few soldiers sit underneath a sheath of fabric below a string of dugouts, abandoned themselves. They do not believe a new war will happen.
“We won the war,” one of the soldiers says confidently. “Ethiopia wanted to switch our government to one that was loyal to them, and they weren’t successful. It was an obvious victory for us.”
If Ethiopia would just follow the decision in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and cease their occupation, the conflict would be over, according to the soldiers.
Today, 14 years after the end of the war, the soldiers believe the biggest threat to the peace rests beyond the rocky field, where the enemy is.
“Ethiopia isn’t the problem, it’s the outside world and the United Nations. They allow Ethiopia get away with their aggressions and by ignoring the ICJ’s decision for Ethiopia to retreat. The outside world wants us to bend, crawl and bow for them [Ethiopia], but that will never happen.”
Geneva Switzerland June 2015
In June 2015, there was feverish activity at the small square outside the United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva. Young and old from all over Europe flooded the square with the famous three-legged chair, carrying drums, megaphones and banners. Many of the participants had wrapped themselves in the Eritrean flag. One of them carried an umbrella with the text: “I love Eritrea.”
Inside the UNCHR building, an investigation by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea, based on more than 500 interviews and witness accounts by survivors in eight countries, would soon be official.
”Stop targeting Eritrea under pretext of human rights,” said one of the banners.
Near the loudspeaker equipment, and under whipping flags and banners, Eritrean-Swede Fthawi Mehari chitchatted with the other demonstrators.
“Twenty-two hours in a hot bus is nothing compared to the sacrifices people have done during the 30 years of struggle for independence,” he said. “ We want to show that there are Eritreans who are against the report.”
As one of the activists in the Swedish division of YPFDJ, Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, an organization described as the youth branch of the ruling party, Fthawi Mehari, who is 30, asked for vacation to travel from Stockholm to participate in the demonstration.
The YPFDJ arranges concerts, parties and seminars to gather young Eritreans in exile. Under the hashtag #HandsOffEritrea they had mobilized thousands of people in just a few days.
One can easily believe that Eritreans in exile would be an oppositional force, but the diaspora is divided and the rhetoric between the different groups is hostile.
Fthawi Mehari told me that he and thousands of others had wanted to contribute their testimony to the UN investigation—but were never interviewed. A fate they shared with companies that invested in Eritrea as well as foreign embassies.
The Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea has also received criticism in diplomatic circles and from scholars because of their one-sided use of testimony by refugees in Ethiopia. On the question of whether it was a little peculiar to demonstrate against the UN, an organization with a fairly high degree of credibility, Fthawi Mehari shook his head.
“I am not against investigations and reports where they find areas for improvement, about Eritrea, but this delegation hasn’t put their feet in there,” he explained.
“But isn’t that because they weren’t allowed entry?”
“They started at the wrong end,” Fthawi Mehari explained. “If you begin by traveling to a refugee camp in Ethiopia to speak with refugees, you have to expect the interviewees to exaggerate so they can get asylum. Then you speak with the opposition, and the last thing they do is to speak with our government, well no, then you won’t be welcome.”
“Because they then already have their opinion of what the state of the nation is,” Fthawi Mehari said, then turned around to welcome yet another busload of people. “Now the people from Stockholm are here!”
Suddenly his irritation is replaced with laughs, tears and the sounds of joy for reuniting.
In the report that the demonstrators are gathered to protest, Eritrea was described as a totalitarian state with torture and forced labor from which 5,000 people are fleeing every month. Young people testified that they had fled the country to avoid indefinite, compulsory military service.
The report also described a widespread surveillance society, where neighbors and family members were forced to tell on each other, or were held prisoners without knowing what they were accused of. The UN experts concluded that they had “rarely witnessed” such grave and extensive human rights violations in a country.
One of the interviewees stated that he’d been hung upside down while electrodes were attached to his arms, so his whole body was shaking. A journalist described how he was whipped and strung up “like Jesus, but without them spreading my arms.”
According to the report, Eritrea was no longer ruled by law, but by fear.
After reading the 478 pages of reported violations against fellow humankind, it was hard to understand the anger amongst the demonstrators on the square. Would all of these testimonials, hundreds of them, be fabricated?
“Nobody denies that Eritrea faces challenges, but if you interview people in refugee camps who are anonymous, you won’t get the truth. [The report] also claims that women in the army were used as sex slaves and there’s no truth in that. All of us have relatives who’ve been in the army,” Fthawi Mehari said.
He and the other demonstrators felt that the report was part of a campaign by the outside world to weaken and destroy the current regime. In their opinion, Eritrea had proven it could rebuild a nation without foreign aid.
“And that’s why Eritrea poses an ideological threat in terms of how the West relates to Africa,” Fthawi Mehari explained.
He also admitted that it was true that some young people did flee to avoid the military duty, but that media should explain why Eritrea has compulsory military service.
“Nobody writes that we have Ethiopian soldiers on Eritrean land, that we are occupied. If the outside world had supported international law and made Ethiopia withdraw from the regions where they have remained after the war, we wouldn’t need mandatory military service,” Fthawi Mehari said loudly enough to be heard over the drums.
In the background, the music got louder and the rhythmic sound against the drums made it hard to continue the interview. When the music stopped for a short moment, Fthawi Mehari continued:
“I have friends who have left the country. It’s tough in Eritrea, but they flee the circumstances, not from the regime. And even those who come to Sweden, quickly become part of the community, they sign a document at the embassy, in which they apologize, and then they can return for vacation.”
Despite the demanding questions, Fthawi Mehari seemed to appreciate our discussion. He says that when Eritrea was discussed in media, nobody ever called him.
Having grown up in Sweden, he considers himself a strong supporter of free elections and democracy and meant that was the plan, long term, for Eritrea too. To stand up for Eritrea in Sweden, a country where most of the reporting of his home country is about an imprisoned journalist was strange, he admitted.
“I always invite my co-workers over for cake on Eritrea’s Independence Day, so they get a chance to ask all the questions they may have. Most Swedes only know of Dawit Isaak, and I take it as my responsibility to tell them about all the other things that are Eritrea.”
“The fresh UNCHR report also brings up the capture and imprisonment of members of the opposition and journalists, are you saying what’s stated in there isn’t true?”
“I have not read the full report, but when it comes to Dawit Isaak, the regime says that it’s about national security, I who believe in and support my government, have to assume that what they say is true. But it is a disgrace that he hasn’t been tried in court. He should have been given a trial.”
Fthawi Mehari believes that if they just work to solve the “overall issues” of the nation, the case of Dawit Isaak will be solved too.
“When the regime says it’s a risk against national security, then it can be solved,” he said before his voice was absorbed by the noise again.
Fthawi Mehari’s frustration was also rooted in a perceived double standard. He felt it unfair that Ethiopia didn’t fall under the same looking glass and criticized by the outside world when, for example, the ruling party got 100 percent of the seats in parliament.
“So highlighting the double standards, justifies lack of democracy in Eritrea?”
“No, but if it’s democracy the outside world cares about, they can’t just attack one country this hard. It’s obvious how Ethiopia, on the other side of the border, can do how they please. They seem to be held under different rules or expectations.”
A short distance away, closer to the street that separates the demonstrators from the UNCHR building, stood a young woman, wrapped in the Eritrean flag, like a shawl. She summarized the report as “500 pages of paper.” She asked to remain anonymous but said: “When our children were bombed with napalm, the outside world didn’t say one word, they looked the other way, but now when we’ve eradicated Polio, malaria, and when my cousins are giving birth to children without dying, that’s when we are attacked by The United Nations.”
She disagrees with the report’s conclusion about the lack of democratic freedom and rights.
“If there’s one place in the world where there’s democracy, it’s in Eritrea,” she says. “We don’t elect a president, but we vote for what we want done. Okay, we don’t have newspapers in Eritrea, but in every street corner there is a bulletin board where people can post what they think and feel about things.”
She shared Fthawi Mehari’s frustration about not being heard.
“Sweden is a country where there is no freedom of speech,” she said. “We have tried to give our version of what’s going on in Eritrea, but we always get ignored. When we demonstrate, nobody writes about it. We are a majority, whom with pride, pay two percent of our earnings to Eritrea in tax. Why are we not invited to debates?”
“But aren’t there any cases in Eritrea where people are imprisoned for political reasons?”
“Are there any such cases in the US?”
“We are talking about Eritrea now.”
“Yes, but why just point finger at Eritrea? Why is Dawit Isaak worth more and the 70,000 Eritreans who were expelled from Ethiopia and cannot return to their lands? Is a person with a Swedish passport worth more than one without? Now that we again are attacked, and our existence is at stake, when the UN threatens to eradicate our country, then you have to look at whose life is worth more. Those who have sacrificed everything for their nation, or his [Dawit’s] life?”
Next to the woman I spoke with, stands an older man, looking to be in his 50s, and listens curiously. To him, this is nothing new. He had fought 35 years for the ruling party, of which he’d been a member since 1998. A resume like his is not unusual among the demonstrators in the square in Geneva. What makes him stand out is that his brother was one of those imprisoned.
Tedros Isaak introduced himself, then said, “You know this whole thing with journalists and such, the UN has brought that up several times. It will get solved sooner or later. Even my brother, Dawit Isaak, will one day be free.”
He swayed back and forth when he was talking and his eyes were searching.
“Don’t judge five million people because of Dawit, look instead to all the new railroads and hospitals. Of course there is room for improvement, I’ve asked the regime many questions too, but before those questions are addressed, Eritrea needs to get out of its belligerency.”
“What types of questions do you have for the regime?”
“Right now, in a state of war, we shouldn’t pressure our regime. Now is the time to support them with all means we have. I don’t want my country to end up like Libya—but many in the West want to see an Eritrea in chaos, conflict between Christians and Muslims, and I don’t want that. I know that my brother is fine, and sooner or later, it’ll be all right.”
“But why is your brother in prison?”
“There is nobody in this world who knows more about my brother than I, and I know that he is doing just fine. I also know that he will be released, so I am not stressing over it.”
“Why was he arrested?”
“No outsider should interfere with my brother’s business. Nobody has a right to do that, aside from my family. It just gets worse. To walk around in a town square doesn’t help, the only thing that helps is my support. That’s why I am here with my people.”
“Do you really believe he’ll be freed?”
“He’ll be freed, I am not worried. I know, that’s why I’m not worrying like my other siblings. They know nothing. If I know 100 percent, they may know five,” said Tedros, then he disappeared into the crowd.
The more I listened to them who were defending the regime, the more intrigued I became. I really wanted to try and understand this country.
How did they end up here? How could the picture of Eritrea be different? How can critical reports incite the demonstrators to go out and defend a nation under attack’?”
In all my conversations I also detected that there appeared to be confusion over Eritrea as an idea and the current state-building.
To be a patriot was synonymous with being loyal to the sitting president. The alienation drew people closer, gave meaning and an identity in a rapidly changing Europe.
The following day, thousands of demonstrators from Eritrea gathered again, and accused Eritreas long-standing president Isaias Afewerki of being a dictator and urged the UN to take strong measures.
We didn’t stay. The answers to our questions were not in Geneva.
To get closer to this mystery, I had to go to Eritrea. I had to succeed with what the UNCHR commission had failed to do. I decided to apply for a VISA to the closed country.
Perhaps 438 days in an Ethiopian prison could be viewed as an extended VISA application?
I wrote a long letter to the Eritrean Ambassador in Stockholm and told him that I wanted to experience Eritrea. Neither write positively nor negatively, just doing my job.
The decision would take a long time.
I wasn’t denied, but I also didn’t get a VISA and I had started to give up hope of ever being able to go on a reportage trip to Eritrea, when an email suddenly appeared in my inbox.
It was from the Eritrean Embassy, inviting me as one of the keynote speakers during an Eritrean festival for the loyalists.
The Battle of Järva Field—Sweden August 2015
ate summer, the grass was wet and the dandelions had long since bloomed. Already in the distance I could hear the buzzwords.
“Dictatorship, dictatorship, dictatorship!”
The mud in Järva Field in northwestern Stockholm stuck to my shoes. It had been a rainy summer.
As I rounded some bushes, I saw about 100 people who had gathered to protest at the annual festival, arranged by organizations with close sympathies with the Eritrean state.
“Innocent people are in prison, it’s torture. Do you people know what it’s like to die in a container?” a man yelled toward some festivalgoers passing by just a few meters away.
Eritrean flags and banners fluttered in the wind. During the summer, the UN Refugee Agency had reported that more than 400,000 Eritreans, or nine percent of the total population, had fled. And, according to the UNHCR, 5,000 Eritreans left the country every month in the summer of 2015.
While I made my way across the muddy field, I thought that they probably wanted to test me, see if I dared to speak at this event. Behind a kilometer-long fence, on the actual festival grounds, a few thousand people had gathered. On the other side of the fence stood about 100 demonstrators.
It kind of looked like a medieval battlefield.
Men in yellow vests and two-way radios guarded the festival entrance.
In front of them stood a paddy wagon. Tumult had erupted as some of the demonstrators tried to storm the festival and had clashed with the festivalgoers and the police had to interfere.
It didn’t take long before people recognized me.
“Is it true that you will speak at the regime-festival?” an older man, asked me politely. “We got very disappointed when we heard that. We demonstrated for your release from prison, and now you do this?”
Before I had a chance to respond, a young woman added: “Yes, is this really true? Are you really going to talk for them? This festival is political in every way. Arranged by the only political party in Eritrea. They are using you. If the purpose of your participation is to promote journalistic freedom in Eritrea, you’ve chosen the wrong platform. I also believe dialogue is important, but to what price? Not at the expense of my people.”
A third person began talking about the festival’s importance for the country’s economy.
“All young people, and many adults, are forced to work for the regime, the rest escapes. Their two main incomes are the two-percent tax, and these kinds of festivals!”
According to the demonstrators, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and the organizer of the festival controlled and supervised the event via the Eritrean Embassy, in order to collect taxes and “voluntary” contributions in exchange for services such as identity documents, passports and other documents a refugee would be dependent upon.
I began formulating a response, but didn’t have time to finish before I heard the chants now addressing me.
“Schibbye, don’t speak! Schibbye, don’t speak!”
The announcer for the demonstrators saw me and I gesticulated to him that I wanted to say something.
“Give him the mic!” many of the demonstrators yelled now.
For a second I hesitated.
A part of me understood them, and sure I get that it’s problematic for me to speak at the festival and not just interview participants. But sometimes you have to take advantage of an open door. My plan was to hold an uncompromising talk about the importance of journalism and freedom of speech. After all, it’s these people who have the keys to Dawit Isaak’s cell. But I also believed they held the answers as to why Eritrea is the way it is.
And if this was naïve of me, and that I’d just be used for an appearance in their state-owned television, I planned on cancelling it myself.
They were testing me, but I was also testing them.
I walked over to a tent, where the sound system was, grabbed the microphone in a tight grip and looked out over all the people. Behind them, the fence and a towering a circus inside the festival area. I remember thinking: “the Battle of the Järva Field” as the buzzing and chanting stopped and the demonstrators gathered around me.
“Hello everyone! I work as a journalist and then you have to speak with both sides, even if it’s difficult,” I began, a little carefully.
I recognized several of the faces in my audience from freedom of press events for Dawit Isaak. Many of them wore scars on their bodies from torture and imprisonment. I wanted to tell them that I had applied for a VISA to visit Eritrea, and gotten an invitation to speak at the festival in response.
But it was too soon. I was in the middle of the Eritrean Embassy’s litmus test, and it wasn’t an easy position I’d put myself in.
“I once promised, when I left prison after serving in 438 days as a prisoner of conscience, to tell the world what I have seen and it is a promise to the other jailed colleagues around the world that I plan to keep. Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling around and speaking about the freedom of press: about that it should be a war crime to imprison journalists, and that’s what I intend to do inside that festival today—”
I didn’t get any farther before I was interrupted by applause. The aggressive mood had vanished.
“Thank you so much, it is great that you are honest with us, and it is important to speak about the importance of journalism. There are many imprisoned journalists in in Eritrea. Go in there, and tell them,” one protester outside yelled.
I returned the mic and when I turned toward the festival entrance, I heard the words “Dictatorship, dictatorship, dictatorship!” echoing across the Järva Field again.
Just when I was about to duck underneath the police tape, I saw Meron Estefanos, who stood, stone-faced, staring at the Eritrean flags.
“I get so upset to see all these people attending this festival, just this year 1,000 Eritreans have been beheaded by ISIS, or drowned on the Mediterranean. It feels as if they don’t care about their countrymen,” she said.
From an apartment in a Stockholm suburb, she works fulltime, reporting on Eritrea for the opposition radio station, Radio Erena. After the tragedy outside Lampedusa in October 2013, Meron Estefanos caught the attention of the world, and she has been a link between the desperate refugees on the Mediterranean and the Italian Coast Guard for several years now.
“I don’t understand how they can dance at a festival, financed by the regime. I am here to show that it shouldn’t be allowed. If these people think it’s so great in Eritrea, what are they doing here then?” she said, sounding tired.
Here Eritrean-Swedes had gathered from around the country. All of them wondered why Swedish authorities hadn’t stopped the festival. They had worked for several years, trying to outlaw the festival, by reminding the landowners that they are renting their property to a dictator, but so far nobody has responded to them.
“People have traveled here from all over Sweden to protest against this festival, and also against Sweden. They are collecting money for the Eritrean military openly here, it should be illegal, but Sweden doesn’t care. I honestly don’t know what the Swedish government is doing I am getting tired of them. They say nothing about this, because they want to free Dawit Isaak, but at the same time I am also an Eritrean-Swede and I think it’s about time to take a harder stance. We’ve been waiting for 14 years now,” Meron Estefanos said.
I ducked underneath the tape and headed toward the entrance, slicing through the no-man’s-land of the two groups. The grass was tall and still moist after the night’s rain.
The guard at the entrance had a firm handshake and wore a brassard of the Eritrean flag tightly tied to his upper arm. Next to him stood Fthawi Mehari from Geneva and of the political party’s youth branch, YPFDJ.
“Welcome to Eritrea,” he said and followed me into the festival area.
The rain had held off since last night and the muddy ground was slowly drying up.
Once inside, a more festival-like mood took over; it was family-oriented, festive and sold-out. According to Fthawi Mehari, 5,000 people visit the festival every one of its four days. There was a large tent for big lectures and meetings, a barn for the smaller ones and small tents for business meetings or for use by different Eritrean organizations were sprinkled throughout. In the middle of it all stood a clown, flown in from Eritrea, to entertain the little ones.
“We flew in a comedian from Eritrea also, as well as some of the country’s most popular artists,” Fthawi Mehari said.
Despite the loud and festive alarum, the demonstrators on the outside could be heard.
“Dictatorship lovers! Go home!”
I asked Fthawi Mehari what he thought about the accusations and the yelling.
“I’m fine with it. They have a right to stand there and protest, making life miserable for people who are entering the festival. Actually, later in the evening when they are finished, some of them even come inside to join the festival, so it’s a bit ambiguous. Today though, about 30 of them tried to storm the fences and exercised violence, but that’s where we draw the line and our guards had to stop them,” he said.
“But if they are yelling ‘If it’s so good in Eritrea, go home then!’ how does that feel?”
“The rhetoric they use is very hostile. You only hear what they yell in Swedish, but what they say in Tigrinya is even uglier, meaner. They target women who walk by and say things that make people sick. But it is okay, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.”
His explanation of polarization was the Eritrean regime’s thoughts on social justice.
“That everyone in the nation shall live under equal conditions and everyone working together. I’m not sure everyone shares that reasoning, perhaps those who personally aren’t benefitting from the cause.”
“Everyone I’ve told about this festival and that I am going, have reacted in surprise and say things like “what kind of dictatorship lovers are they, living in Sweden and supporting that regime?” Why do you think they react that way?
“It is media that portrays things that way. As you can see, there are a lot of them here. But none of the journalists will mention the festival mood, they will stay over there by the fence. Those who are there [anti-regime] will get all the attention. Why it’s that way, I don’t know, but it feels like media have a preference for those who do not support the Eritrean regime,” Fthawi Mehari said, grimly.
It was already packed inside the large tent, and people of all ages sat tightly squeezed, shoulder-to-shoulder, on the wooden benches. The sun was bright and I was wondering if my pictures would be visible on the screen. Behind it was an enormous Eritrean flag.
“Oh, so you are here, we never thought you’d dare. I was expecting a text from you saying that you’d gotten sick or something,” Sirak Bahlbi of the Eritrean Embassy said and laughed loudly.
He told me about politicians who’d participated and been raked over the coals by the press afterward as “dictatorship lovers” and never dared to return.
“They say they’d like to come but don’t dare because of Swedish media, but isn’t it the job of a politician to do just that, meet people who think differently and discuss different points of view?” Sirak Bahlbi said.
I had met him once before when I submitted my visa application. His family lived in London and he was quite new at the job in Stockholm. The first shock for him was that compared to England, in Sweden all people knew about Eritrea was about the Eritrean-Swedish journalist, Dawit Isaak.
While we were talking, more and more people poured into the tent.
“We had to move your lecture here, to the largest tent, because the interest is enormous,” Sirak Bahlbi said and wondered if I wanted to dine with the Ambassador and guests after my talk.
I declined on the spot. It would probably have been a great material for my story, but it felt like getting too close.
I saw how the incumbent presidential adviser, Yemane Gebreab, sat down close to the podium. He has a substantial influence over politics in Eritrea.
I swallowed hard. I had passed the point of no return.
Beforehand I had asked Johan to film my lecture so nothing could be edited out or changed. But I couldn’t find him anywhere in the audience. It was so quiet in the tent, you could have heard a pin drop. Both the organizers and I were nervous.
I had held the same lecture for the EU Parliament, at American press conferences, in Bangkok, Vienna, Capetown and all over Sweden. But this time everything felt different. I saw how several people in the audience fished out their phones and began filming as I began speaking:
This morning 17 colleagues in the Kality Prison [outside Addis Ababa] woke out to the shrill voices of the guards, “Kotera, kotera, kotera!” mixed with the sound of nightsticks banging against corrugated sheet metal.
They stood then two by two “Hulet, hulet!” in the mud outside of the metal barns. When all the prisoners, hundreds of them, had been accounted for, the metal doors closed behind them again.
Even if I’ve been released from the prison, I’ll never be free from the noises. The first screams were always the worst, that scream before the first hit, and then toward the end, the prisoner had gone quiet.
I told them about the realpolitik, about the Horn of Africa, about the situation in Ogaden. Then I showed a picture of Reeyot Alemu, a journalist who sat in the next cell over, and how she during many times in her 30-year-old life had been faced with a choice. She could have chosen a simple life.
But her love for the truth, for Ethiopia, for her fellow humans and for journalism, inspired her to become one.
She stayed and wrote.
She showed what journalism should be, but all too often is not.
She paid the price for coming generations, a high price.
She paid with her freedom.
I saw how many in the audience nodded and took pictures with their phones.
Representatives for governments will always say that the freedom of press has to be balanced against other values such as stability, economic growth and regional power balance. But in countries where journalists are imprisoned, nobody is free.
Then I explained what it means to get the attention as a prisoner of conscience.
After Johan and I were released, we have often been asked if attention helps those who are imprisoned. I would like to think that it is more important than bread and water.
The support from the outside is what gives you the strength to sustain, and the guards think twice because they know that “the world is watching.”
So I took a deep breath and added:
That’s why I write letters to Dawit Isaak, to let him know that he’s not forgotten because that’s your biggest fear as a prisoner of conscience. Even if he doesn’t receive the letters, the mere knowledge that someone is writing, is what makes you keep on going. To know that you are deprived of your freedom for a good cause.
It turned completely silent in the tent again.
To target a journalist should be like barbecuing a panda. It should be a crime against humanity. It may sound bold and grandiose, and I am really not neutral in this question. To me it’s personal. Freedom of the press is the freedom upon which all other freedoms rest. Without the freedom for journalists to do their job, the world will turn mute.
As soon as I stopped, I looked at a forest of hands. Some people were so enthusiastic that they stood up. The first question came from the politicians in the first row.
The questioner thanked me for my lecture, summarized what I had said and then wondered: “But what do we do with journalists who commit crimes? Should one be allowed to do whatever one sees fit, just because you have a journalist’s badge?
“No, if a journalist commits a crime, that person needs to be arrested and then put on trial. If that doesn’t happen, people need to prepare for a political shit-storm from the International Federation of Journalists,” I responded.
Someone else asked why Swedish media and media in the rest of the world had such a skewed picture of Eritrea when Ethiopia got away with everything.
“It’s partially due to the fact that Ethiopia is allied with the West. They have tested to cross all the red lines there are to cross, arresting and convicting international journalists, jail bloggers and nothing results in any diplomatic, political or economical consequences whatsoever,” I said.
The exchange at times got heated, but was straightforward. During a full 30 minutes we discussed the war against terrorism, the change in Swedish foreign policy, Olof Palme and Dawit Isaak. All who asked questions were polite, well-informed, intellectual and reasonable.
We agreed that we didn’t agree on everything.
After the lecture, a man appeared out of the masses. I recognized him immediately.
Dawit Isaak’s brother, Tedros Isaak, took my hand, thanked me for coming and said everything was going to be all right.
He told me not to stress.
Scandic Hotell Lidingö August 2, 2015
stone’s throw away from the Eritrean Embassy in Lidingö, just outside of Stockholm, sits the Scandic Hotel. With bare walls, and an echo, the small conference room wasn’t the best meeting location, but there was no time to find a better option.
Just an hour earlier, I had received word about the interview. The Embassy didn’t want to reveal where the Presidential Advisor, Yemame Gebreab, was staying, for fear of protestors.
We weren’t quite confident in each other.
As the only Swedish journalist, I’d been granted an interview before he returned to Eritrea.
The night before, I had stayed up late and watched him getting fiercely attacked in interviews with the BBC, Chanel 4 and France 24.
“I’m not very good at this,” he said and looked pained while unbuttoning his blazer and sat down on the hard wooden chair across from me.
I thought it must be a weird feeling to constantly be attacked. To every morning feel that world is against you.
Johan slapped his palms together to synch the sound and recorded interview began rolling.
When I asked him to tell me how one becomes a politician, he looked at me for a long time, suspiciously, through his glasses—as if he was calmly trying to figure out what cunning trap I had set for him.
“I was born into politics,” he said. “During a time when my generation was coming of age, was also a coming of age for the armed independence struggle for Eritrea.”
The only times his answers were abrupt during the whole interview was when I asked personal questions.
It was as if he thought the questions strange. Why would he as a person be interesting—when I was reporting about his nation? And when I asked if he’d lost a loved one in the wars, he almost looked offended.
“There is no one in Eritrea who hasn’t lost someone dear,” he said. “We have all sacrificed our lives for our nations’ freedom, and it has been a rewarding experience.”
And then he slowly began talking about the dream, a dream that kept him alive during those 30 years in the trenches. A dream that contained so much more than just freedom from Ethiopia.
“I fought for a country that was going to meet the needs of its people, a country that would improve quality of life, establish social justice, and that struggle is far from over.”
The time after independence had been by far more complicated and conflict-ridden than he had ever imagined during the war.
The improvements the country has managed and been recognized for, according to the UN, are regarding reduced maternal and infant mortality. “But that’s not enough,” said Yemame Gebreab.
“They are modest improvements. It’s far from what we want to achieve, our biggest bragging point is that we have the highest life expectancy in Africa today with 67 years old. In 1994 it was 38.”
Yemame Gebreab had visited Sweden several times to meet with Swedish politicians. This time the sole purpose was to visit the festival and now he was on his way home.
“We would welcome an extensive collaboration, but so far we haven’t heard anything positive from Sweden when it comes to our ideas.”
According to him, he was there to show “support for their own.”
“I am here with a message to my people that we are going through a very tough time, and we need all of our people’s help to move forward.”
According to Yemame Gebreab, the shift in government in Sweden (which has a multi-party system) has not made a difference in the relations between the two nations.
“I don’t see any bigger differences between the new and old, but I believe that there are possibilities to maintain and foster dialogue around both the questions on which we agree and disagree.”
On the direct question if Margot Wallström, the Deputy Minister of Sweden and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been a strong critic of the sitting regime in Eritrea would be welcome in Asmara, he said respectful relations across the board were more important than high-profile state visits.
“We all live in the past. Many African countries have not calibrated their attitude toward the West, while Europe views Africa as a problem area. I think all that needs to change.”
Yemame Gebreab highlighted that Sweden was an important actor in the Afro-political scene back in the 1960s and 1970s, but has since then withdrawn, something that he feels is very unfortunate.
“I would welcome a more active role by Sweden. Africa changes, it’s not the renaissance people are calling it, but there are possibilities. Also Europe isn’t as strong or rich as it once was and through this a good partnership could be born.”
The beginning of all interviews is usually calm and collected but you always get to the point when the question has to be asked.
“One of the hindrances for good relations between our nations is the imprisoned journalist, Dawit Isaak. After more than 5,000 days in prison—do you have any news about him?”
“I do not have any news about his situation, but it is a question that has dominated our relations and has for Sweden and the Swedish government been the only question. There are other issues, the 30,000 Eritreans living in Sweden, for example, and they aren’t in prison. So far, I have not seen any efforts from the Swedish to discuss this. That’s the lay of the land, and in regards to [Dawit Isaak] and his case, it has been discussed meticulously with Sweden but we have not been able to get anywhere.”
“If we use my case as an example… I was jailed in Ethiopia, accused of terrorism. Both Sweden and Ethiopia wanted to find a solution, and that’s what finally happened. Would it be possible for a humanitarian solution in his case? That you’d reunite a family that has suffered for 14 years?”
“First of all I don’t believe these cases are comparable at all! In the case of Dawit the judicial is solid, but regardless of the solution, it is a solution the Eritrean government will come up with. This is not an appropriate matter for diplomatic bargaining. Dawit Isaak is an Eritrean citizen and the Eritrean government has the mandate to find a solution to that problem.”
“Would it be possible to get an interview with him, as a sign that he’s alive?”
“The regime has a ‘track record’ when it comes to that type of event.”
“What exactly do you mean by ‘track record’?”
“Not only Eritrean, but also prisoners of war are well cared for, that’s how us Eritreans treat people we have deprived of their freedom.”
“So he’s alive?”
“I can’t discuss a particular case, just the government’s stance on the issue.”
“But is it worth it? His imprisonment has been the main issue between our two nations for decades now. The international critique is harsh since he hasn’t had a trial, which he has a right to. Don’t you just want to wipe your desk clean of this issue?”
“Once again, this case concerns a particular time in our history. When the war was the most intense between Eritrea and Ethiopia, he was a part of the movement. This is not a question of diplomacy or something that’s up for debate, it’s an internal affair for Eritrea, and it is also Eritrea that will find a way forward.”
Thousands of thoughts fly through my head. On the one hand, it was clear that they saw Dawit as part of the G-15 group that called for reform of the country in the spring of 2001. On the other hand, both journalists and politicians have long sought for signs that he was alive—and what he just said was that he was treated well.
So Dawit must be alive. Or, did I read too much into his response?
When I moved on and asked about Yemame Gebreab’s views on the concept “freedom of the press,” he said: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right, but the term ‘Freedom of the Press’ can be argued.”
“I don’t believe representatives of the world press can look themselves in the eye and say: ‘We are free.’ At least that’s my read of it. Look at [Silvio] Berlusconi’s private media empire— that, I do not call a free press. But the development of Eritrea, it is important that young people don’t turn into parrots that only repeat what the elders say.”
When I asked about the UNCHR report that was published in Geneva earlier in the summer, Yemame Gebreab immediately questioned the investigators’ bias and methodology.
Offense. Always offense.
The central parts of the report on torture, he rejected categorically.
“That’s not true. They are imaginative portraits, copies of drawings rom a report made by Amnesty International in 2004. It wasn’t correct then either. Pictures are an expression of people’s vivid imaginations,” Yemame Gebreab said.
He denied the allegations about torture in the Army and compulsory military duty, too.
“All these allegations that people are forced into the Army and tortured, it’s not true. But when it comes to military service, it used to be 18 months, but after the war broke out in 1998 and we had to defend ourselves against a strong military power, so many stayed in the army longer than they were supposed to.”
The war. Always the war. The background to the restrictions of freedom of the press, the difficult situation in the country and military service, all according Yemame Gebreab, were connected to the war that broke out in 1998, and the still-unresolved border conflict with Ethiopia.
“Ethiopian troops continue to occupy Eritrean territory. It would be foolish to rule out the break out of another war, but the best way to avoid war is focusing on development. Ethiopia wants us to focus on war.”
When I asked how having the Army mobilized at the border was effecting the country, he didn’t take fully take the chance to use the border conflict as an excuse.
“We try to not be held hostage by this conflict. Ninety percent of the Army resources are used to develop the country. Our soldiers aren’t sitting in the trenches by the border.”
The view that everyone who flees Eritrea does so due to the state of the nation was, according to Yemame Gebreab, exactly what image the media is reproducing.
When I said that the Eritreans aren’t just fleeing, they are also risking their lives in doing so, he shook his head.
“Look at those who have managed to get to Calais, they are in France in safety, and then they want to go to England. Why do they want to move on if they are fleeing for their lives and have already crossed the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean?”
To get him to discuss “push” not just “pull” factors seemed impossible, but after a while he did admit there were shortcomings.
“Can the situation in Eritrea be better? Yes, and that’s what we are trying to accomplish. We are trying to foster a social environment and quality of life to make the youth want to stay in Eritrea.”
I felt how the interview was about to slip into a numbers game, a trap I’ve seen all too many journalists get stuck in.
The fact that Sweden gave political asylum to all Eritreans applying, he cited as the main reason for the many refugees.
Hadn’t half a million Swedes left the old country and immigrated to the United States, once?
Wasn’t migration a “global trend sweeping the world?”
One of my questions had to do with what had been described in the UN-report as a “shoot to kill policy” at the border. I hesitated. The mood was worsening already.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to get a VISA because of questions I never asked. But I had hardly finished the sentence before I was challenged.
“That’s a direct insult against my country, it’s an insult of the culture, an insult to the people in Eritrea. We don’t do such things, it’s not part of who we are. It is not true,” Yemame Gebreab said, upset, and turned in his chair.
For the first time during our interview, he was visibly irritated.
There went my VISA, I thought, trying to calm things down by asking open-ended questions about the future, which was described as bright.
My plan was to ask him about my VISA application on tape and I wondered if I interpreted the government right in seeing a pattern in which more and more foreign journalists were allowed into Eritrea.
”We have a very complicated relationship with the press, but we’ve decided to give it a try. Let people come here and report what they want. We recently let a team from BBC in and that experience was an enormous disappointment. They were dishonest. But we said we would give them the chance, and we did. It’s up to them that they threw it away. What we want is for people to come here, have a look and draw their own conclusions.”
”I’ve applied for a VISA to observe the border conflict. Can an application like that be granted?”
”You are welcome.”
”Then we’ll continue the interview in Asmara.”
”Sure,” Yemame Gebreab said, stood up and unclipped the microphone from his lapel with a practiced hand that had done this many, many times before.
This is the first part story in a series of three in Martin Schibbye’s and Johan Persson’s reportage from Eritrea.